Thursday, January 30, 2014

El Nidooooooooooooooooooooo

Our next stop was El Nido at the very north of Palawan where we would end up staying for longer than anticipated. The journey to El Nido wasn't the most comfortable; first we took a bus from Sabang which chucked us out when it reached the nearest major road junction, from where we were lucky to get the last two available seats in a mini-bus with our luggage crammed right behind us.  We checked into a guesthouse which was essentially the upstairs floor of a family home, complete with four dogs. The major selling point was a large balcony overlooking the beach, although by the time we had checked in it was too dark to see the view. The view that greeted us the following morning was pretty spectacular. El Nido is spread along a narrow crescent-shaped beach. Beyond the beach and the numerous boats in the natural harbour were dramatic limestone cliffs jutting out of the water, reminiscent for us of Halong Bay inVietnam.

Unfortunately, the weather still wasn't co-operating with our plans to enjoy the plethora of beautiful beaches nearby. Almost the whole time we were in El Nido (which was a looooong time) it was mostly overcast with spells of high winds and rain. The occasional periods of sunshine were unpredictable and rarely lasted long enough to take advantage of them. Still, things could have been worse – we had a comfortable balcony from where we could read our books, listen to music and enjoy the view (that is when we didn't have to pull the covers down for protection from the elements), and the beach-side bars had a variety of happy-hour offers that were so good they were difficult to turn down.

So far in the Philippines the food had been underwhelming. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just that there wasn't much in the way of traditional Filipino food, and most places offered a variety of generic fried rice/noodle dishes alongside Western dishes like pizza, pasta and burgers. The Filipino food that was offered mostly consisted of fried chicken, fried rice and a fried egg; not particularly inspired. A number of the recommended restaurants in El Nido were closed during the low season, but we did find a couple of places that served really good food, and we ended up frequenting those places regularly over the coming days. Alcohol, on the other hand, was not problematic in the slightest – in fact in the Philippines it is so cheap that it is genuinely difficult to decline it. A bottle of San Miguel is cheaper than a can of coke, and only slightly more expensive than a bottle of water. Throughout the trip I had only occasionally had a beer as a treat, and usually opted for water which was much more sensible in the hot weather; here I figured that beer had plenty of water in it anyway, so it was the best of both worlds!

Whilst the town itself was very pleasant (well, at least it would be in decent weather) we had come to El Nido to enjoy the beauty of the local area. The best way to explore the area is by way of a number of all-day boat trips. The really nice thing was that instead of countless places offering all sorts of different tours at different prices that are next to impossible to compare, in El Nido there are 6 set tours, A to F, at set prices. This greatly reduced the amount of time we had to spend shopping around and deciding what to do and through which tour company. Instead we were faced with a different difficulty, as the weather was preventing boat tours from leaving every day like usual. Instead, after we opted for a particular tour we had to wait until the following morning to see if the weather was calm enough for us to go.

Thankfully, after one day written off due to the weather it cleared up enough the following day for our tour to leave. The tour took us through the spectacular limestone landscape and made a number of stops at various points:

Firstly we stopped at the beautiful Commander beach on a tiny island.

Unfortunately as the morning progressed, the weather deteriorated and it got colder and colder on the boat, and it became impossible to get dry and warm after swimming due to the rain. It actually had potential to get quite miserable, however our guides were so relentlessly chipper that it was impossible not to have a good time. The rougher the sea, and the colder and wetter they got the happier they seemed to be.

The highlights of the day were two spectacular lagoons aptly named the Big Lagoon and the Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon was accessible only by two of the guides getting into the water to guide the boat through a narrow passageway in between the rocks (which, of course, they did with huge smiles on their faces) before swimming in through an entrance too narrow for boats. The Small Lagoon was even more secluded, as the only way in was by swimming under the rock through an extremely narrow entrance. Once inside the Small Lagoon opens up into two sections (is isn't actually that small), and also has a really cool water-filled cave with a natural skylight at the top of the cliff above you. Both lagoons were absolutely stunning – floating in the beautiful crystal clear emerald coloured water whilst looking up at the huge limestone cliffs that completely surrounded us felt like we were some sort of different world.

Next stop was the beautiful and rugged Shimizu island where we did some great snorkelling and then ate a lunch of barbequed sea-food and fresh fruit prepared by our guides.

Shimizu island is also home to hundreds of tiny hermit crabs.

After lunch we headed out a little to a fantastic snorkelling spot where we saw all kinds of tropical fish and fantastic coral. Fortunately the bad weather had just held off for us to eat lunch, and of course it doesn't matter if it's raining while you're snorkelling, but the wind and rain started to really pick up and the water became quite choppy so we headed back onto the boat before it turned into a full-blown storm.

The next stop was supposed to be the Secret Lagoon; however, by the time we made it back onto the boat the weather had turned really nasty, and to go to the Secret Lagoon would have meant us heading straight into the storm (which looked like a solid block of greyness). Our guides gave us the option of continuing, but the decision was unanimous that we should give the Secret Lagoon a miss. Instead we went in the opposite direction to another tiny island which provides a nice look-out point over the interesting sand ridge which has formed due to two conflicting currents meeting, and which means that you can walk from one island to the next.

Despite the weather being awful for a large part of the day, and forcing us to miss the Secret Lagoon, we had a terrific day. We were cold and wet most of the time we were on the boat, but the water was fairly warm (apart from in the lagoons) and the sights we saw and the relentless cheeriness of our guides more than made up for the weather.

In fact we enjoyed the tour so much that we signed up for a different tour, which was able to leave a couple of days later. We started off on a fantastic beach where Survivor was apparently filmed a few years ago. The main focus of the tour was snorkelling, and we made two extended stops for that purpose. The first stop didn't look promising at all, as the water stayed extremely shallow for a long distance from the shore, and in fact the others on the tour didn't actually bother going into the water; however, once we got out far enough the sea-floor dropped dramatically, and the shelf had some great coral and a fantastic selection of fish. The second snorkelling stop was even better; in fact it had some of the best coral we had ever seen – including huge flat corals which must have measured 4m across – and an incredible range of tropical fish including plenty of varieties that we had not previously seen on the trip. Apart from the absence of turtles the quality of the marine life was at least as good as what we had seen in Indonesia.

In between snorkelling stops we ate lunch (again, barbequed seafood cooked by our guides) on a lovely island which also had a small cave which could be explored by scrambling through a small hole. It was another great day.

After a few days we were ready to move on from El Nido. As beautiful as the area is there is only so much time one can stay at the beach when the weather isn't co-operating, and we were running out of boat tours to do. Our next intended destination was Coron Island; however there is only one boat scheduled per day to make the 8 hour trip from El Nido to Coron and due to the bad weather there was no guarantee when it would be able to leave. I honestly don't know how many days we waited for that boat as many of the days in El Nido blend into one. Every day the owner of our guesthouse would tell us that the boat would hopefully leave the following day, only to subsequently inform us that it had been cancelled. It was really frustrating.

Our stay in El Nido was by far our longest stay anywhere (with the exception of Hydrabad). We tried to make the most of the additional time in El Nido - if it wasn't for this delay we probably wouldn't have gone on a second boat trip, and it did give us longer to catch up on some reading and blog writing (when we had electricity) and to take advantage of the aforementioned happy hours. When the weather was temporarily nice one day we took a tricycle to a different, quieter, beach which we enjoyed for a couple of hours until the clouds and rain returned. We also investigated a range of alternative options including heading back South to Puerto Princessa and flying to a different part of the Philippines from there; however we really wanted to go to Coron (for reasons that will be abundantly apparent in the next blog post) and in any event there didn't seem to be anywhere else in the Philippines where the weather was any better, so we decided to wait it out.

Eventually, about 8 or 9 days after arriving in El Nido, and about 4 days after we had planned to leave, we got the go ahead that a boat was leaving for Coron on 30th September – my birthday. Happy birthday to me!

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